In 2021, the wild population of Mexican gray wolves in the United States increased by 5.5 percent, raising the total number in the wild to a minimum of 196 animals, including 45 packs and 25 breeding pairs with pups. This important increase is largely due to the hard work of amazing wildlife technicians sponsored by Defenders of Wildlife to assist with Mexican gray wolf recovery efforts.
These dedicated field assistants are instrumental in every step of the process, from field camera monitoring to helicopter counts to cross-fostering captive-born pups into wild litters to help improve the genetic health of the wild population. To make this happen, Defenders coordinates with the Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team to support a wildlife technician program. Recent college graduates with experience in biology and wildlife management help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Arizona Game and Fish Department monitor wolves and implement conflict-reduction tools and techniques to give our Lobos the greatest chance of success in the wild. This most recent batch of journal entries is from the current wildlife techs who started their time with the program in the Spring. We hope you enjoy this edition of Mexican Gray Wolf Field Notes as much as we appreciate the hard work and dedication of the techs who are tirelessly working to give Mexican wolves a chance.
My first days working for the Mexican wolf program were filled with excitement and new learning experiences. We were immediately thrust into field training, learning how to use our telemetry gear and reset trap cameras. The final days of training were the most fun, camping under the stars and learning how to howl for the wolves (although some of us sounded more like pups than actual adult wolves). These first two shifts were a whirlwind of training and getting set up for the future of being a volunteer for the wolf program.
At the end of this month, I had the opportunity to help with a cross-fostering pup operation. Pup cross-fostering is a very exciting (although sometimes stressful) method of increasing genetic variability in the Mexican wolf population by assimilating captive pups into a wild litter. This past Thursday morning, I headed out to the meeting site to wait for the captive pups to arrive so I could hike them to the den site. When the pups got there, I watched a veterinarian tube feed them some formula. These pups were only seven days old, so they were used to being fed about every four hours; we had to get some milk in their bellies before heading on the journey out to the den. After feeding them, we began the trek to the den site with the pups in a small carrier backpack. We hiked for nearly 30 minutes over the rocky ridges and through thornbushes until we reached the den. There were three pups already in the den, and we cheek swabbed them all for genetic information, weighed them, and made sure they were healthy. Next, we took all the pups and mixed them together to make sure they all smelled the same. We also gave the wild pups little milk mustaches since we had just fed the other pups and wanted to make sure the female couldn’t tell which pups weren’t hers when she returned. Finally, my coworker crawled back into the den with them: mission success! I am so thankful that I was able to experience such an integral part of Mexican wolf conservation, and feel so lucky to be a part of this project every day that I’m out in the field!
Training was pleasantly exhausting as all of us new volunteers were trying to learn new skills and prepare for the next six months. It was interesting to see the new locations where we would be spending most of our time and to try to get familiar with the new landscape. I think the greatest part so far has been getting to meet and interact with everyone. All the people who helped out with the trainings did a great job of explaining things. It’s great to see the community of people that are putting in their time to teach us and show us how much they care about the program. It has been fun getting to know everyone since we all have different backgrounds and different levels of experience. I think that with such a great support system we will do great things in our time here and make a positive impact.
This is my first time exploring the southwestern United States and I have relished in the unexpected delights of the region. A few of these gems include the short-horned lizard I was surprised to find among the needle strewn floor of a pine forest in Alpine, and the various cacti looking quite out of place decorating the tops of forested mountains. However, both the most challenging and the most glorious experiences have come directly from learning to study wolves. There are moments when I freeze in place, enthralled by the simple yet monumental impression of a wolf track that materializes below me. On one outing, I was fortunate enough to find two sets of tracks moving side by side, forming a clear image of the wolf pair journeying beside one another. During training, we were scrambling up a particularly steep hill strewn with loose rocks and cacti. Any fatigue I was experiencing melted away when I reached a high enough point for a rhythmic beeping to finally shine through the crackling in my telemetry receiver, telling me that a wolf was on the opposite ridge. In moments like these, where the reality that I am sharing the landscape with wolves really sinks in, the frustrations of any obstacles melt away. Unforeseen delights and difficulties make each day feel colorful and fulfilling, and all fuel the certainty that there is nothing else in this world I would rather be doing.
In mid-May, I got to participate in a cross-foster event and was on the initial search crew that looked for the den. When we found an uprooted tree that the wolf had denned in, I was sent to see if she was inside. Fortunately, she came out of the den, glared at me with protective momma eyes, and ran off to watch and howl at us from afar while we retrieved the pups. After we gave the pups their microchips and swabbed their cheeks for their genetics, I was ecstatic when I was told that I was going to be the one to put the pups (+2 new captive bred siblings) back in their den. It wasn’t very deep, but they seemed happy being curled up in a big pile out of the sun and wind. I’m looking forward to tracking their development as they get older and start to annoy their parents.
During my second week of work, I was able to assist with the release of an injured wolf. This particular wolf had sustained life-threatening injuries about a month before and had luckily been found by an employee of the Forest Service, who was able to call for help and get her transported to a veterinarian for treatment. Once she was deemed healthy, healed and ready to be released, my coworker and I went to pick her up. At the release location, we unloaded the big crate from the bed of the truck, and set it a few yards away, facing the vast expanse of trees. We spent about 20 minutes gently jostling the crate and attempting to coax her out. This wolf seemed uninterested in leaving her comfy crate at first, but was eventually convinced to explore her new surroundings. She didn’t take off like a bullet, run and never look back or cower away from us, tail tucked as she ran into the trees. Instead, she sprinted a few dozen yards, slowed down, turned to look at us for a moment, then trotted on. She wove her way lazily through the trees and seemed to be drinking in every ounce of her regained freedom; enjoying the sun dappling her fur and the pine needles gently crunching beneath her padded feet. My coworker and I watched her go, both of us leaning over the hood of the truck, massive smiles plastered to our faces. It was a moment I will never forget- just the two of us standing in silent awe, watching one of the creatures we work so tirelessly to conserve and protect.
This month we were presented with a wonderful opportunity on Endangered Species Day to help with a Mexican gray wolf education table at the Rio Grande Zoo in Albuquerque. We had a model skull, a track cast and a radio collar with telemetry antennas to demonstrate how we track wolves. Our main objective was to engage with kids, and we had a variety of wolf-related goodies for them like stickers, masks and wolf print stamps that they could earn after answering a simple wolf-related question or giving us their best howl. My favorite activity was hiding toy wolves that had small radio collars attached and helping kids track them down with real telemetry equipment.
June has been an exciting month for me! I was able to participate in the capture of five captive wolves residing at Ladder Ranch. We needed to capture these wolves because wildfires were nearing the ranch and we wanted to move the wolves to another captive location safely. A huge team of 20-30 people worked to capture these wolves and corner them into a smaller area where we could take physiological measurements and blood samples. I was able to help process all five of these wolves and even got to draw blood a few times.
Much of the month was spent maintaining food caches for certain wolf packs in an effort to increase cross-foster success. I was also fortunate enough to participate in several captures at a captive facility to translocate wolves out of a nearby wildfire. In addition, several attempts were made to obtain a visual confirmation on wolf pairings to see if any wolves in the region were paired with an uncollared wolf. Recent trail camera footage revealed this season’s Mexican wolf pups. With such a vast landscape full of suitable habitat, there is difficulty in facing the tense reality that ultimately characterizes this part of the Southwest. Without the imposed arbitrary boundaries and politics, the Mexican wolves would succeed on their own.
My favorite part of this season is being able to find some of the best wolf signs. The muddy, soft ground is the perfect medium for finding pristine wolf tracks, and it is also a lot easier to determine how fresh they are. With all the rain we are getting, day-old tracks get washed away before new ones show up. And even if the rain does not wash old tracks away immediately, it is still possible to tell which are fresh based on how dry the mud is and how clear the prints are. One thing that I have started to pay more attention to in the recent weeks is the size difference between wolf tracks from different packs. One pack over here in Arizona has a wolf that is known for having massive paws and, oh man, when I stumbled upon a set of his tracks, I could not believe how HUGE they were! I got to compare his tracks to a set I found a few days later belonging to an uncollared wolf, and the difference is staggering (pic below).
– Ashley Everroad
This month there are starting to be puppies on camera! These are puppies from the packs we cross-fostered so it’s very powerful to be able to see some of the same puppies I helped process starting to grow up and look very healthy. Many of the puppies we are seeing right now are around 12 weeks old and are very active and entertaining to watch interact with their parents at the food caches. So far, there are four puppies that we’ve spotted on camera for the packs I work with, and hopefully we’ll be seeing more soon. The photo evidence that we’re really making a difference makes me excited to show the importance of our work, even the most laborious tasks. Puppies make the hard days worth it!
– Paige Dunnam